Students talk of life as Christian minority in city

There are no checkpoints in Utica. And traveling throughout southeastern Michigan doesn’t involve searches by soldiers with automatic weapons.

That’s important for five 13-year-old students and their vice principal visiting from the Palestinian city of Ramallah, about six miles north of Jerusalem in the West Bank.

The visitors are part of a small — and shrinking — Christian minority in the West Bank city. About 2 percent of the population in the area is Christian, according to some estimates.

Thanks to the efforts of parishioners and officials at the St. Lawrence Catholic Community, they’re sharing their stories with their American counterparts.

"In Palestine, we have checkpoints, we have no freedom," said Donia Shomaly, one of the Ramallah students visiting until Nov. 4. "But here, we can go anywhere."

The students and their vice principal are staying with host families. Parishioners raised $15,000 to bring the group to southeastern Michigan.

"I love American food. It’s delicious," said Bulos Shatara, one of the students.

During the six-week visit, the group will speak to several audiences, including church officials and Utica politicians, on what it’s like in Ramallah — including the difficulties of being Christian in a predominantly Muslim and Jewish land.

All of the students have stories of delays or conflict or violence. They’re hoping their messages can make a difference.

"There needs to be peace," said Ramallah student Majdi Al-Lada. "We hope America can help. We need to live like friends together, like brothers and love each other."

They will also go to Washington, D.C., for a conference of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation — the nonprofit organization that works to bridge Christians in the west with those in the Middle East.

"It’s also to help create awareness for our people of what life is like out there and vice versa," said the Rev. Bob Fisher of St. Lawrence.

It’s not all seminars and speaking. The group went to the final home game of the Detroit Tigers last week.

Children Peace Project

St. Lawrence 8th-graders Jessica McNeil, left, and Madison Kubinski, both 13, hold up signs written in Arabic and English as they welcome the Palestinian students.Palestinian student Majdi Al-Lada, 13, of Ramallah in the West Bank, works on a project during art class at the St. Lawrence School in Utica last Wednesday. The Palestinian students and their vice principal are visiting for six weeks.